Why Don't American Cities Burn?


At 1:27 on the morning of August 4, 2005, Herbert Manes fatally stabbed Robert Monroe, known as Shorty, in a dispute over five dollars. It was a horrific yet mundane incident for the poor, heavily African American neighborhood of North Philadelphia—one of seven homicides to occur in the city that day and yet not make the major newspapers. For Michael B. Katz, an urban historian and a juror on the murder trial, the story of Manes and Shorty exemplified the marginalization, social...

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Why Don't American Cities Burn?

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At 1:27 on the morning of August 4, 2005, Herbert Manes fatally stabbed Robert Monroe, known as Shorty, in a dispute over five dollars. It was a horrific yet mundane incident for the poor, heavily African American neighborhood of North Philadelphia—one of seven homicides to occur in the city that day and yet not make the major newspapers. For Michael B. Katz, an urban historian and a juror on the murder trial, the story of Manes and Shorty exemplified the marginalization, social isolation, and indifference that plague American cities.

Introduced by the gripping narrative of this murder and its circumstances, Why Don't American Cities Burn? charts the emergence of the urban forms that underlie such events. Katz traces the collision of urban transformation with the rightward-moving social politics of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America. He shows how the bifurcation of black social structures produced a new African American inequality and traces the shift from images of a pathological black "underclass" to praise of the entrepreneurial poor who take advantage of new technologies of poverty work to find the beginning of the path to the middle class. He explores the reasons American cities since the early 1970s have remained relatively free of collective violence while black men in bleak inner-city neighborhoods have turned their rage inward on one another rather than on the agents and symbols of a culture and political economy that exclude them.

The book ends with a meditation on how the political left and right have come to believe that urban transformation is inevitably one of failure and decline abetted by the response of government to deindustrialization, poverty, and race. How, Katz asks, can we construct a new narrative that acknowledges the dark side of urban history even as it demonstrates the capacity of government to address the problems of cities and their residents? How can we create a politics of modest hope?

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Katz brings together demographic, economic, and political evidence to form a new narrative of the modern city centered on the experience of the urban poor. He not only reveals what happened in inner cities in the last decade but writes convincingly about why it matters. And he gives hope that the long decline of urban places can be reversed, even neighborhoods like North Philadelphia."—American Journal of Sociology

"Katz's work begins to move us away from a story of inevitable urban crisis and decline to a more balanced interpretation that incorporates structural inequities and human agency, as well as policy failures and successes. Indeed, Katz is working toward nothing less than a revision of our understanding of urban America in the late twentieth century."—Journal of American History

"In June 2006, distinguished urban historian Michael Katz served as a juror in a murder trial in his hometown of Philadelphia. That case propelled Katz on a fascinating journey to understand the social conditions that lay behind the fates of murderer, victim, and the city where they both struggled to survive. With Katz as sage guide, we revisit urban America over the last half century as well as the public policy successes and failures that are an inseparable part of that story."—Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America

"Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, Why Don't American Cities Burn? is a terrific read that is difficult to put down. Katz considers changes over the past half-century through the lenses of urban geography and population demographics, institutional structures, the public's ossified view of the deserving and undeserving urban poor, and how the zeal for market-based solutions has led towards new poverty technologies that recast the poor as entrepreneurial actors. Most important, Katz introduces his book with a story that humanizes the field of social sciences that—paradoxically—appears at times to have forgotten the people in the sea of quantitative analyses."—Peter Hendee Brown, University of Minnesota

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812243864
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/30/2011
  • Series: The City in the Twenty-First Century
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,461,589
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his many books is The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: The Death of Shorty

At 1:27 on the morning of August 4, 2005, Herbert Manes stabbed Robert Monroe— known as Shorty— to death on the 1400 block of West Oakland Street in North Philadelphia. No newspaper reported the incident. Arrested and charged with homicide, Manes spent the next ten months incarcerated until his trial, which ended on June 8, 2006. After deliberating less than ninety minutes, the jury concluded that he had acted in self- defense and found him not guilty on all charges. I served as juror number three.1

This Prologue is the story of the trial, what it meant for me, and what it signifies about marginalization, social isolation, and indifference in American cities. It distills the essential themes of this book into an incident at once mundane and horrific. It is also the story of what I learned from Herbert Manes. It is not a neat story. Ambiguities remain unresolved, contradictions abound, ends dangle. It begins with the two main characters and where they lived.

Herbert Manes was born on June 29, 1938. His family lived south of Gerard Street, around Ninth Street, in what he says is now "upper Society Hill." His parents had migrated from South Carolina before World War II but met in Philadelphia, where, after knowing each other for only two weeks, they married. Their marriage lasted more than sixty years until their deaths in their seventies. Herbert has two brothers, one of whom has died and one who works for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He also has a sister who works for the Youth Study Center, a secure facility for youths age 13 to 18 considered a risk to the safety of the community or at risk for flight while awaiting their hearing before the Juvenile Court. When Herbert's parents died, an aunt who lived to be 104 years old managed the family. Everyone referred to her as "the boss." Herbert spent his entire early life in the neighborhood in which he was born, attending Jefferson School and then Benjamin Franklin High School. He left school to make money at age eighteen without graduating. Money became important, because after a shotgun wedding, which he claims was common at the time, his first child was born when he was twenty. In all, Herbert has eight sons, one daughter, and many grandchildren. His former wife, from whom he was divorced in the 1990s, lives in Cheltenham, a heavily African American suburb on the edge of Philadelphia. Until her retirement, she ran the dialysis unit at a local hospital. Herbert speaks of her fondly, describing her as a "lovely lady" with whom he stays in touch. Most of his children live in the Philadelphia area, some in Willingboro (formerly Levittown, New Jersey, and currently home to many African Americans), and three or four in the South. Herbert sees his children and grandchildren only at family reunions.

For thirty- five years, Herbert's father worked for a moving company from which he received a pension. Herbert describes him as a good father and has warm memories of both parents. Herbert drove a furniture truck for the same firm for many years until, like most of the city's manufacturers, it went out of business. He then worked in steel mills, which he described as "brutal work." He retired after an injury and survives on social insurance. "Uncle Sam takes care of me," he told the jury. He also drove a gypsy cab.

Herbert looks older than his years. At 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, he stands slightly stooped; his close- cropped hair is a grizzled gray; his large lips protrude on one side of his face, almost as though he had experienced a stroke. Round, dark- framed glasses give him a quizzical look. For his trial, he wore an open- neck, long- sleeved light gray shirt, blue trousers buttoned at the top with no belt, and light tan workingmen's boots. Shorty remains more mysterious. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, birth and death certificates remain closed to all but relatives and their attorneys. As one of the jurors who had acquitted Shorty's killer, I could not just show up on his brother's or sister's doorstep asking for biographical information. Nor would it be safe for me to roam his neighborhood's streets in search of friends and acquaintances to interview. A friend offered to help by contacting two people with local networks. But the unpredictability that disorganizes lives on the city's mean streets intervened. One man was arrested and jailed before he could cooperate. Another potential informant was shot in the head and killed on a violent Saturday night when three other men also met their deaths between midnight and three in the morning.

This much is known: Shorty was born on August 26, 1964, in Neptune, New Jersey, where he lived until at least age ten. His brother and sister still live there. Like Herbert with his gypsy cab, Shorty was part of the informal economy found everywhere in America's inner cities. Shorty worked on the street as a freelance mechanic. In Philadelphia, many street mechanics work near auto supply stores. Customers purchase parts in the stores and bring them to the mechanics. The activity violates a city ordinance, but no one seems to care. Although only 5 feet 2 inches tall and 147 pounds, Shorty was expert in martial arts. Herbert described Shorty's strength and powerful build; he was, said Herbert, impossible to fight in any straightforward way.

Shorty was well known to the police. Between July 23, 2001, and January 29, 2003, he was charged with offenses ten times. His alleged crimes ranged from unauthorized use of an automobile and other vehicles to theft by receiving stolen property, criminal trespass, burglary, retail theft, and drug- related offenses. Remarkably, each charge was either withdrawn or dismissed. For a long time I was puzzled by Shorty's ability to escape criminal charges unindicted; he truly seemed to be a Teflon man. His history began to make sense in December 2009 when the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series of articles under the banner "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied." "In America's most violent big city," the investigation discovered, "people accused of serious crimes are escaping conviction with stunning regularity." The statistics told a depressing story of administrative incompetence. "Only one in 10 people charged with gun assaults is convicted of that charge. . . . Only two in 10 accused armed robbers are found guilty. . . . Only one in four accused rapists is found guilty of rape." In most big cities prosecutors win about half their cases; in Philadelphia they win 20 percent. "It is a system that all too often fails to punish violent criminals, fails to protect witnesses, fails to catch thousands of fugitives, fails to decide cases on their merits— fails to provide justice."2 In Philadelphia, Shorty's ability to walk away from arrests now appeared more the norm than the exception.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Death of Shorty
Chapter 1. What Is an American City?
Chapter 2. The New African American Inequality
Chapter 3. Why Don't American Cities Burn Very Often?
Chapter 4. From Underclass to Entrepreneur: New Technologies of Poverty Work in Urban America
Epilogue: The Existential Problem of Urban Studies


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